Wong Kar-Wai can make anything look sensual. In all my life I’ve never seen a blueberry pie that made me want to kiss someone, but the way he shoots the ice cream melting down the sides of a mound of blueberries is so romantic you want to go out, find a girl and spend the rest of your life with her and that’s in the first five minutes.
In his new film, My Blueberry Nights, that romantic feeling is unloosed upon the audience. It however begins to wear after awhile before coming back to a redeeming final few minutes of sumptuous filmmaking.
I love Wong Kar-Wai as a filmmaker. The way he frames his subjects really accentuates their places in the world. There’s a moment in Kar-Wai’s meditation on a homosexual relationship Happy Together in which Tony Leung’s character is being snubbed by his former lover and the camera catches only a portion of his face – and it’s heartbreaking. His In the Mood for Love is filled to the brim with such beautifully shot moments. The abstract slow motion lulls us into the constant sadness that controls their lives. They live in the same moments over and over again…waiting for something to change.
In Nights the characters’ inhabit a different kind of world, one that seems to want to move past them, while they sit uncertain where to go or what to do. One character watches security camera footage to relive moments over and over again or to glimpse the things that he misses, things that happen right in front of him.
The camera captures faces with grainy slow motion effects that make the character’s feel like they’re stuck while the camera moves over them, and a train rushes by in the background. Most of the time in film a character is framed so that there is space in front of them when they are looking off camera, here these lovelorn characters’ faces are flush with the wall of the frame and all the space is behind their head. They have no future only past – boxed in to the moment. It’s a lush, busy world. It’s fitting for New York City, where our story begins.
Elizabeth played by Norah Jones has been traumatized into this uncertain world by a relationship gone bad. She wants to hold onto it in any way she can. She visits the cafe that cleverly has a lot to do with said relationship where she befriends a similarly lonely figure, Jeremy as played by Jude Law. The heart of Nights lies here, in this cafe. If the whole movie had taken place in this location, between these two characters – it would have been brilliant. The movie is worth seeing just for their interplay (incredible foreplay if you bring a date). It reminds me of the playfulllness of the second half of Chungking Express. But Elizabeth has other things in mind, cross country odyssey to rediscover who she is beyond the relationship that’s defined her up until now.
Unfortunately on her way to find herself Kar-Wai loses the focus of the film. It could be due to a few things. At times the themes are indulged to the point of banality. Each character is defined by their relationship with another person, but because each section of the film is approached with the same loftiness you never get a second to breath and enjoy. There are no platitudes throughout the middle of the film so the edge dulls. Which means the relationships never quite meet the passion or enjoyment of the first relationship in the film. Jude Law is absolutely superb. Everything else pales in comparison.
David Strathairn, Rachel Weisz and Natalie Portman each jump directly into the deep end committing completely and believably to each character
And then there’s Ms. Norah Jones. At times her unassuming, nonjudgmental, naive eyes work for the character, whereas other times it seems that she doesn’t know how to convey emotions in a way that tells the character’s story and just can’t call upon the depth she needs as a first time actress to make us believe in her journey. We’re left with dialogue that tells us she’s been through a change, but we never quite see the change. Though it is nice to hear her breathy voice grace the soundtrack of the film.
There are also moments in which the editing avoids a reaction shot that might be necessary to help show her change. It could have come down to avoiding shots because the performance just wasn’t there. To cut away and show nothing also doesn’t help. Or it could have been a stylistic approach. In which case, it still doesn’t help.
While that stylistic approach captures NYC beautifully (as it always does Hong Kong) it doesn’t translate as well to some of the other locales Elizabeth visits. It hurts the film by drawing us out of the action, and by the time we end up in a place where the style fits again we’re so tired of the constantly repeating theme, it doesn’t matter how hard the supporting actors try we just don’t care about the extraneous situations as much. I think Kar Wai’s instinct to only tell two stories in his Chungking Express might have helped here.
And when we witness the absolutely romantic end, with a moment that goes into the romance record books, I wish his instinct had been to share only one of the stories with us or if nothing else, one of the locales.